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Traditional Jewish Food: A Defense

Some of us are actually okay with who we are and what we eat

Marc Tracy
May 12, 2011
What are we, chopped liver?(Flickr/winyang)
What are we, chopped liver?(Flickr/winyang)

Jewish chefs’ cleaning up at the James Beard Awards earlier this week reminded me of this risible article food writer Josh Ozersky published in a recent Time. At first, I didn’t want to respond, since the piece was so obviously jerry-rigged to provoke angry responses—if something begins with the sentence, “I’m not sure how to say this without offending anybody,” then here’s betting the author is intending precisely to offend.

But I can’t help myself. Ozersky’s article is about how Ashkenazic food is bad and Ashkenazim are silly for pretending that it is not. “I’m speaking of the familiar Eastern European Jewish food that most American Jews of my generation grew up eating,” he says. “Dry and flavorless brisket, cooked in a salty fluid of Campbell’s beef broth and Lipton onion soup mix. … pasty, cold chopped liver with inexplicable pieces of hard boiled egg implanted in it; dense lokshon kugels, sweet noodle casseroles as unappetizing as a Christmas fruitcake.” This passes for food criticism? (Imagine a movie reviewer panning some film as “dry and flavorless” without at least going into further detail.) And even if Ozersky is correct about some of these delicacies—personally, chopped liver has never been to my taste—might not the comparison to “Christmas fruitcake” yield the revelation that Jews are not (as his article implies they are) exceptional in their cultural clinging to outdated cuisines as correlatives for bygone eras?

A closer reading, however, reveals that Ozersky’s problem is less with Eastern European Jewish food and more with Eastern European Jewish culture and Eastern European Jews, not excluding himself. “I’m not talking about Kosher food, which is a special department of its own,” he caveats (well, not if you’re doing it right). Clearly, religion must not be permitted to enter a discussion of something having to do with Jewishness. “Nor,” he continues, “am I speaking of what Jews eat in Spain, Israel, or Argentina—rich, dynamic food cultures that have entranced the world.” So if you are a sabra, or if you are Mizrahi—presumably what he means by “what Jews eat in Spain,” since, as the Forward noted in an otherwise obsequious blogpost, there have not been many indigenous Spanish Jews since that whole Inquisition business—then that’s okay, because your colorful culture is ‘entrancing.’ Hypnotizing! Mystical, even?

“I know,” Ozersky adds, “that a lot of American Jews have traveled to Israel and become highly attached to the foodways of their Sephardic cousins, whose love of spices and vivid flavors is in such marked contrast to our own bubbes and zaydes.” If only we hunched, bespectacled Ashkenazim out here in the diaspora could divorce ourselves more fully from our cramped Yiddish roots in the shtetl and somehow adopt the exotic culture of our “Sephardic cousins,” then we, too, might be unique and would no longer need to loathe ourselves. (Never mind that, by definition, “Sephardic cousins” in this context is an oxymoron: The only way for an Ashkenazic Jew to have a Sephardic cousin is by marriage, and since he brings it up I cannot resist noting that Ozersky’s wife was “raised by Israelis”—lucky her—and “grew up around vivid sumac and zaatar, and hummus laced with rich sesame tahini,” a self-parodically sumptuous description that only completes his Jewish re-enactment of Orientalist condescension).

“Nobody is giving Jewish food the Torrisi treatment,” he complains, referring to the Manhattan restaurant that has ingeniously updated old Italian recipes. So he hasn’t been to Brooklyn’s Mile End, then? I feel really sorry for him that his mother’s brisket is not nearly as good as mine’s is. And if he has decided that he is done with his own Eastern European Jewish cuisine and background, that is his decision to make. But please don’t take to the pages of Time and claim to speak for all of us, writing disparagingly of “an ethnicity in which we all eat bad, bland, heavy food.” Some of us don’t eat it, and some us do and think it neither bad nor bland. (Okay, it is pretty heavy.) I have no doubt his bubbe taught him better.

The Kugel Conundrum [Time]
Related: Mile End [Tablet Magazine]
Unkosher [Tablet Magazine]
Time Mag’s Attack Against ‘Jewish Food’ [The Schmooze]
Earlier: James Beard Nods Toward Jews

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.